Anxious People Demonstrate A Heightened Sense Of Smell

People who are anxious may demonstrate a heightened sense of smell, according to new research being conducted at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The authors of a new study say the response may have evolved to help us literally sniff out threats.

Part of a special issue of Chemosensory Perception dealing with neuroimaging the chemical senses, the findings reinforce the notion that our sense of smell, and more specifically the olfactory-mediated defense system, is an evolutionary holdover from a time when it was our primary means of detecting predators and other environmental dangers. Smell stills works to evoke strong emotions in humans, even when not directly threat-related.

In the experiment, 14 young adults were exposed to three distinct smells: a neutral pure odor, a neutral mixed odor, and a negative mixed odor. They were then scanned with magnetic resonance imaging and asked to try to detect the odors. Breathing rates and galvanic skin conductance were also measured to assess emotional arousal levels. The participants were also asked to rate their level of anxiety immediately following the experiment.

As anxiety levels rose, according to the data, so did each participant’s ability to correctly identify negative odors. At the same time, skin conductance indicated that anxiety led to increased awareness of olfactory threats. The MRI results show a marked increase in neural communication between regions of the brain responsible for emotion response and sensory processing and analysis. They hypothesize that it is this increased activity that accounts for the heightened smelling ability.

Source: University of Wisconsin, Madison
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